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Interpreter of Maladies


One of my favorite books of all time is "Interpreter of Maladies", a collection of short stories by Pulitzer prize winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri. I had read the book in my early twenties, within a couple of years of immigrating to the United States, and all the immigrant-centric tales, vividly captured by Ms. Lahiri, felt as though they were describing my existence. I loved that each story trailed off into a field of questions the reader could ponder upon and within the realism lay provocative themes that has an opaque answer, at best. With age had come the realization that acceptance is the most appropriate of synonym for 'closure'.


The story that I most remember is the titular "Interpreter of Maladies", about a young Indian American family visiting India with their three children. The father is the eager, bookish, shutterbug of the family, the children are precocious with one more so than others, and the mother is a young, contemplative woman who seems to be burdened by some of life's weights. There is a dourness to her that is not the result of a recent skirmish, a heaviness to her steps that foretells an unhappy connection to life. There is no joy in her interactions with her children, and her engagement with the exploratory guided tour is distant, almost reluctant.


We experience the story through the eyes of Mr. Kapasi, the tour guide. A keen observer of human interactions, he seems to understand the undertones of dysfunction in the family system. The father's over-eager enthusiasm about the tour, the wife's rigid reticence that seems to get no reaction, the varied personalities of the children, each looking for different levels of validation from the different parents. Mr. Kapasi himself is no stranger to a stilted marriage, and the quiet tension makes him see Mrs. Das in an appreciative light, almost as an opportunity to build a life-long connection with the woman in her.


While on the tour, he shares with them what he does as a second job at a doctor's office as an interpreter for Gujarati speaking patients, a dialect local doctors do not understand. How he helps the patients describe their maladies so that the doctor can address the problem. And this information lights a spark in Mrs. Das's eyes, as though she has suddenly found a lifeline. Through the course of the story, Mrs. Das confesses the deepest secret of her life to Mr. Kapasi, hoping that as the interpreter of maladies, he can provide her a magic solution to her life's dilemma. While her revelation breaks Mr. Kapasi's castle in the sky about a future bond with Mrs. Das, it seems to lighten the steps for Mrs. Das, as she rises up to participate in a family drama that unfolds before her.


The story is short but filled with evocative details, that made me feel Mrs. Das's heaviness about life. Married to a man she has known since high school, at 28, she feels ancient. It is almost as though she has lived all the stories she could have lived, and she is now looking for redemption and freedom. Her sense of guilt over a moment of weakness propels her to live her days as though she does not deserve what she has. She has a constant reminder from this lapse of reason that keeps her from creating new, important and happy memories. She is caught by the web of expectations of family, her husband's innocence and her children's future, and yet, she knows she has parked her right to live a life filled with passion.


I experienced the story very personally, and I found this to be the beauty of Jhumpa Lahiri's narrative. She portrays everyday details and our connection to the circumstances in a minimalist and yet realistic way, where any extra plots or sub-plots would seem a nuisance. It is a story I can go back to read a million times, and each time I will experience it deeper. If you haven't read the book, I would highly recommend it.


Translations: Finding an Interpreter

Like Mrs. Das, I have a well full of memories and realities that clutter my every conscious thought. There was a time when trying to find a path through the jungle seemed a journey that was full of darkness, and lonely. The concept of experiencing relief through an interpretation of our deepest pain planted a ray of hope in me, and what I have found is that my writing has become my interpreter.


Being able to put a shape around repressed emotions helps to nurture a nebulous sense of control over a life that seems to run its own course. Being able to say things in the abstract that I cannot say otherwise lightens my soul. Leveraging stories in the Arts to find patterns that connect our global consciousness makes me feel useful in creating a framework fellow lovers of love can use to interpret the stories of their own lives. Being able to connect with people who are similarly looking to live a purposeful life makes me feel tethered to the universe in a way nothing else does.


In the end, what I feel is heard. The silent screams of my soul has a place to go and that is how I interpreted what Ms. Lahiri tried to do in this formidable, short story.


Words. They are powerful. They can empower and they can maim. As I take refuge in this personal journey to keep finding words that can lay a path I can keep trekking on for a brighter tomorrow, I am grateful to all my readers who may find some of the same in what I have to say.


  • (c) mh. 2020

#JhumpaLahiri #InterpreterOfMaladies



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